‘Downsizing’ Duke Ellington in After Midnight

When Paper Mill Playhouse, the State Theater of New Jersey, announced their 2023-2024 season, the production I was most looking forward to was the musical revue After Midnight, which I’d loved in its original Broadway run a decade earlier (as well as in its still-earlier form, originally titled Cotton Club Parade, developed by City Center Encores and Jazz at Lincoln Center). The show was conceived by Jack Viertel as a celebration of music that came out of the Cotton Club in the 1920s and ’30s.

It was built around numbers composed and/or arranged by Duke Ellington. And Wynton Marsalis, who aided in the production, ensured that Ellington’s big-band sounds were presented, as authentically as possible, in all of their glory. I was glad to see Ellington’s music treated with such respect, and I looked forward to the day when the show would be published and licensed so that regional theaters all across America (as well as theaters in other countries) could mount productions of this show. So much time, effort, money, and care had gone into mounting the original Broadway production in 2013. And this was one time when they’d gotten the music right. I liked the thought of audiences far from Broadway eventually getting to enjoy this terrific show.

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But I don’t think I’ve ever been as disappointed by a Paper Mill Playhouse presentation as I have been by their first offering of 2024, After Midnight. Their production of After Midnight is a textbook case in how to ruin a good property. (And the Broadway production of After Midnight was a very good property.) It should not be called After Midnight. It should be called After Midnight Lite or something along those lines. This adaptation of the original Broadway production has been so severely cut down in size that the whole point of the original has been lost.

A program note from Paper Mill’s Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee and Executive Director Mike Stotts says: “Paper Mill is now the first major theater in the country to revive the title in a new, intimate format.” They call the production “a sumptuous salute to Black Culture from 1920s New York City.” They call it a “big-band song-and-dance showcase.”

But this production does not even have a big band! And the production is doomed right there. On Broadway in 2013-14, the conductor directed 16 musicians; that was indeed a big band and the band faithfully played Duke Ellington classics from the 1920s and ’30s, meticulously transcribed by such experts as Mark Lopeman and David Berger. (Lopeman and Berger know the music of this era exceptionally well, and they prepared charts that captured brilliantly what Ellington and company created.)

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At Paper Mill, just seven musicians are given the impossible task of trying to re-create Ellington numbers written for significantly larger ensembles. I hated seeing one superb Ellingtom arrangement after another butchered. How can you call your presentation a “a sumptuous salute to Black Culture from 1920s New York City” when you demonstrate such little respect for—or appreciation of—Ellington’s music? Ellington would have been appalled to see his masterfully written big-band charts—crowning cultural glories of the era—gutted like this. And Ellington’s music is the heart of this show. Fully 17 of the 26 numbers in the show were composed and/or arranged by Ellington.

I’m not faulting the seven musicians I saw on the stage—Sean Mayes (conductor/keyboard), Raymond Johnston (reeds), Jackie Coleman (trumpet), Siya Charles (trombone), Anthony Peterson (guitar. banjo), Jordyn Davis (bass), Steven Jackson Jr. (drums). They’re making the best of a bad situation; they did well, considering the difficult challenges they were given. They were good at getting the right feel and tempo for a particular musical number; but seven musicians cannot—under anyone’s definition—be considered a big band. We were winding up with the ruins of classic big band pieces. (I couldn’t help but recall the brilliant use that master director/choreographer Bob Fosse made of Benny Goodman’s big band-era classic, “Sing Sing Sing,” in his Broadway show Dancin’. The combination of Fosse’s dancers with the full-bodied note-for-note recreation of the Benny Goodman masterpiece was, for many, the high point of the show. And that big band favorite was played, with tremendous elan, by a full-sized big band. Had producers tried to economize and use only seven musicians instead of a big band, the number would have fallen flat. And the whole show would have been weakened.)

I was stunned, seeing/hearing one Ellington masterpiece after another mutilated at Paper Mill. An Ellington number like “Braggin’ in Brass” (originally recorded by Ellington in 1938 by a 15-piece band, including a four-man trumpet section and a three-man trombone section) doesn’t work when performed with only one trumpet and one trombone. It’s not “Braggin’ in Brass” anymore; it’s more like “Muttering” or “Murmuring” of “Mumbling in Brass.” A thinned-out version of “Take the A Train” (one of the best-known works of the big-band era, used for exit music here) is, for my ears, painful to hear; it has no guts anymore; it feels more like lounge music.

The show’s opening number, “Daybreak Express,” first recorded by Ellington with 14 musicians in 1933, should be surefire. “Daybreak Express” is a powerful Ellington classic, with great forward momentum. And it should get the show off to a superb start. But the performance by the seven musicians at Paper Mill feels anemic. The downsized small-band version gives the show a weak opening.

Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra 1930

Wonderfully shaded Ellington signature numbers like “The Mooche,” “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”—as perfect as any charts crafted in that period—made Ellington’s band unique in the big-band era. It was—for very good reasons—the favorite big band of so many jazz musicians. Ellington was in a class by himself. As my late friend, the writer/music expert James T. Maher put it, “Ellington skinned our ears” with his new music. But the cut-down charts being played at Paper Mill won’t skin anyone’s ears.


Ellington was all about tonal colors, and making unexpected tonal blends. All of that extraordinary genius of his—which stunned me just as much when I saw Ellington and his Orchestra “live” in 1973, as when I savored their many recordings—is lost when you reduce the arrangements so drastically. The subtleties and nuances vanish, and the music becomes much less interesting. And since so much of After Midnight depends upon the music, the whole show becomes less interesting. The 2013-2014 Broadway production (of which Wynton Marsalis was a producer) got the music just right; and the hand-picked orchestra featured some of the best players of this music to be found anywhere. That provided a solid foundation for all of the singing and dancing. The authentic music gave the show its character, its reason for being.

It bothered me so much, seeing Ellington’s music treated so shabbily at Paper Mill Playhouse, that I was tempted to walk out. Paper Mill would never think of presenting a classic Broadway musical like Gypsy, Carousel, or Follies–which they’ve presented wonderfully over years—with only seven musicians; the people who run Paper Mill would know that would be disrespectful; they would know that they could never do justice to the music of Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, or Rodgers & Hammerstein with just seven musicians; the Paper Mill audiences would expect more and would deserve more. Well, Ellington merits the same sort of respect.

Ellington was a genius. And I don’t use that term lightly. He was a giant among jazz composers and arrangers. In its Broadway run, After Midnight featured some of Ellington’s greatest arrangements, faithfully interpreted. For this “new, intimate” version of After Midnight someone far less gifted than Ellington—and apparently lacking the artistic taste or discernment to know the difference between gold and dross—has debased his work. The program says that this new “small cast edition” of After Midnight was “developed by Michael J. Bobbitt.” The show is being licensed by Broadway Licensing LLC. To me, what they’ve done to Ellington’s music is almost unforgiveable. The music has been eviscerated. And that’s a tragedy.

I wish Paper Mill had chosen to use 16 musicians, like the original Broadway production of After Midnight. That would have been ideal. Paper Mill has presented many musicals with orchestras of about that size. If they absolutely could not afford an orchestra quite so large right now, they could have cut a few players from the original 16 and still have retained a rather satisfying big band sound. But if you have fewer than—at minimum—10 players, the character of the music changes so markedly, it makes the show feel cheap, generic. Instead of hearing a brass section or a reed section, you wind up hearing, perhaps, one soloist backed by a rhythm section. It’s not the same thing.

With seven players, you can’t possibly do right by Ellington. It doesn’t sound like a big band at all. And the reason for doing the show has been lost. Instead of giving us a feel for a night at the Cotton Club in its heyday, you’re giving us singers singing assorted songs with a combo that might have been found in countless clubs across America.

Paper Mill’s production of After Midnight features just 10 singers/dancers (down from 25 singers/dancers in the original Broadway production). And while I would have preferred seeing a larger cast of singers/dancers, in this show the downsizing of the cast is not nearly as problematic as the downsizing of the band.

I found all 10 of the singers/dancers likeable. They evoked the period well. And my two personal favorites, Awa Sal Secka and Sasha Hutchings, connected wonderfully with the audience. (Secka’s interpretation of the timeless “Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night” is a particular treat. Oh! She was just great and I look forward to seeing her in more shows.) I thought Staney Martin was endearing throughout. And almost every singer/dancer gets his or her moment.

Aramie Payton, Stanley Martin, Harris Matthew and Anthony Wayne in After Midnight at Paper Mill Playhouse © Jeremy Daniel

Since so many numbers in After Midnight are sung simply as solos or duets, the reduction of the cast size from 25 to 10 isn’t as bothersome as the reduction of the orchestra size. (Although 10 dancers, of course, can’t create quite the same kind of excitement, on big ensemble numbers, that 25 dancers can.) The colorful costumes by Azalea Farley were fun.

The choreography by Dominque Kelly—wonderfully sly and stylized—is a succession of delights. And this music is great to dance to. (Warren Carlyle, who directed/choreographed the Broadway production, won a Tony for best choreography.) Paper Mill’s co-directors Dominique Kelley and Jen Bender keep things moving well, and often cleverly.

Destinee Rea and Stanley Martin in After Midnight at Paper Mill Playhouse © Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made 2024

This is a revue, not a book musical. It presents 26 songs without a storyline. (The only spoken words are some snippets from the poetry of Langston Hughes—too brief to feel like much more than garnishments.) The show runs about 90 minutes—just like the Broadway version. But it feels longer. Because without as much variety in terms of instrumental color, and without as much variety in terms of how musical numbers are staged, a feeling sets in before the end is reached that we’ve seen what everyone can do and the show begins to feel a little repetitious.

The best music is this show is as good as any music from the era. It deserves to be performed right. In their program note, the co-directors say they’re trying to take us inside the Cotton Club, to give us a feel for what a night at the Cotton Club was like.

Here, you have 10 singers/dancers, backed by a septet, trying their best to keep up entertained for 90 minutes. The end result isn’t up to traditional Paper Mill standards. And it doesn’t fairly represent the Cotton Club.

After Midnight—as presented on Broadway—was a good show. If the people who created this new “intimate” version don’t have much familiarity with the music or the Cotton Club shows, I wish they’d consulted people who do. Or had done a bit more homework.

In their program notes, the co-directors of the Paper Mill production, Dominque Kelley and Jen Bender, write: “After Midnight is not only a celebration of the music of the Duke Ellington years and the poetry of Langston Hughes, it is a love letter to Harlem itself…. At Harlem’s iconic Cotton Club and its neighboring nightclub, the Savoy, bodies writhed and contorted to savory blue notes…. Headliners at the Cotton Club included the biggest celebrities of the day, including Josephine Baker….” But their very words suggest a lack of familiarity with the era. The Savoy was not a nightclub, it was a world-famous ballroom, where people danced to top big bands. Josephine Baker was never a Cotton Club headliner; she was a great star, but not a Cotton Club star. If the show is intended to be “a love letter to Harlem,” it seemed odd to me that the set is dominated by a photo of the Cotton Club—but it is not a photo of the original Cotton Club that, from 1923-1936, was a crown jewel of Harlem (situated at 142nd Street and Lenox Avenue), but a photo of the later edition of the Cotton Club that, from 1936-1940, existed on Broadway at 48th Street, in the theater district.

There is a rich musical and cultural heritage here that is being disrespected in this downsized After Midnight. In the format being used at Paper Mill, we’re getting a much more generic—and far less interesting—night of old-time Black entertainment than audiences got in the original Broadway production or its City Center Encores/Jazz at Lincoln Center forebears. And that’s a pity.

Paper Mill is a major regional theater and other theaters may follow Paper Mill’s lead in making programming choices. I’d hate to think that this woefully diminished version of Broadway’s After Midnight may wind up in theaters in all parts of America, and overseas—trying to evoke Ellington’s big band sounds with just seven players.

Chip Deffaa is the author of 20 published plays and eight published books, and the producer of 36 albums. For 18 years he covered entertainment, including music and theater, for The New York Post. Visit Chip online at www.chipdeffaa.com

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